By Christopher Connell

It’s a staple of commencement addresses: a distinguished speaker tells the new graduates that their potential is unlimited.

For a select group of former international students, their promise was fulfilled on the world stage. Four current national leaders and dozens of former ones hold degrees from U.S. colleges and universities.

Some spent four years as undergraduates and earned bachelor’s degrees, but most came for graduate studies, including a half-dozen who received doctorates in economics.

Open Doors 2018, the institute’s annual census, found a record 1,094,792 international students enrolled during the 2017–2018 academic year.

As American campuses, the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs celebrate International Education Week November 12–16, these graduates are a particular source of pride for their alma maters.

From left, former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (© AP Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in business administration, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Amherst College alumni rolls include Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prince Albert II of Monaco.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earned a master’s degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Former presidents and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who finished their terms in 2018, also hold master’s degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School, which prepares Americans and international students for careers in public service.

Harvard connection

The Kennedy School’s alumni rolls include 13 foreign presidents and prime ministers, according to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Among those leaders are three former presidents of Mexico: Carlos Salinas, who earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in political economics and government, and Miguel de la Madrid and Felipe Calderón, master’s degree recipients.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe spent three semesters taking public policy classes at the University of Southern California.

In addition to Santos and Johnson Sirleaf, other recent world leaders with U.S. degrees include:

  • Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, master’s degree in economics from Yale.
  • Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
  • Former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University.